Endorsing Neoliberal Capitalist Ideas Connected to Loneliness and Reduced Well-being

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New research addressed the question of whether neoliberal ideology affects individuals’ well-being. Adding to the literature that has documented the negative social and economic effects of neoliberal politics, Julia Becker, Lea Hartwich, and S. Alexander Haslam conducted a series of studies to examine whether individuals’ health is similarly impacted:

“We explore the argument that neoliberalism with its emphasis on personal responsibility and its de‐emphasis on social support and solidarity can lead to feelings of loneliness and of being alone in a highly competitive system…”

Their paper, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, represents the first experimental research, to their knowledge, that examined how neoliberal politics influence individuals’ sense of social disconnection, loneliness, competitiveness, and well-being. They summarize their findings:

“Despite suggestions that this political philosophy might promote individual well‐being because it encourages people to strive for personal growth, we found that it actually appears to be harmful to health because it can create a sense of being disconnected from others, as well as being in competition with them, in ways that feed feelings of loneliness and social isolation.”
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Becker and colleagues identify neoliberalism as the prevailing ideology in numerous parts of the world. The central feature of neoliberal ideology is the emphasis on organizing economies and societies around free-market principles, thereby constricting government and state intervention. These principles include individual entrepreneurial freedom, responsibility, property ownership, and free trade.

The assertion that free-market principles are conducive to social progress and individuals’ well-being, an assumption central to neoliberal ideology, has been debated. Although some scholars have contended that neoliberalism encourages growth and striving toward self-actualization and happiness, others have pointed out that neoliberalism undermines these aims and corrodes people’s sense of security and solidarity by promoting competition.

The researchers briefly reviewed the ways social inequality is exacerbated by neoliberal ideology:

“Under neoliberalism, economic disparities are seen as accurate reflections of differences in hard work and deservingness, and the neoliberal age has seen a corresponding rise in inequality.”

The authors continue:

“Indeed, it has been argued that inequality is not an unintended result but itself an important feature of neoliberal politics because it is supposed to serve as a mechanism to increase competition and productivity.”

Becker and colleagues’ new paper supplements existing evidence that neoliberalism is detrimental to community life by compromising trust and social cohesion, divorcing individuals from the associated health-enhancing attributes. Moreover, their research connects findings that suggest that interpersonal competition and loneliness can heighten people’s experiences of insecurity, anxiety, stress, and depression to neoliberalism:

“For example,” the authors write, “research has shown that a neoliberal conception of personal debt as failure is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and blood pressure.”

Becker and team conducted a series of four comprehensive studies, using participants from Germany, the UK, and the US, to explore the health effects of neoliberal ideology:

“…to our knowledge, the effects of neoliberal ideology on variables such as social isolation, loneliness, and well‐being have yet to be studied. The present research fills this gap by attempting to explore whether neoliberal ideology can heighten loneliness and associated health problems.”

First, in study 1, they examined population data at a specific point in time to explore a possible relationship between perceived neoliberalism and well-being. They utilized various measures to assess correlations between perceived neoliberalism and loneliness, well-being, and political orientation.

Their results garnered support for their hypothesis: neoliberalism engendered feelings of loneliness that, in turn, negatively affected individuals’ well-being. These effects were not explained by individuals’ political orientation or social class.

Then, the following research design was utilized in the remaining three studies that they conducted. Guided imaginal exercises tested whether exposure to neoliberal ideology could cause these psychological effects. They asked participants to envision a future society based on a written description provided.

In one group of participants, the description articulated a future society based on neoliberal principles. In the second group, the society described was based on social equality principles. In the control group, no description was provided. Instead, participants in the control group were instructed to freely imagine a future society.

Studies 2 and 3 examined the impact of neoliberal ideology on loneliness and then well-being, respectively. They found that participants in the neoliberal condition reported feeling lonelier than those in the social equality or control conditions, providing “the first causal evidence that neoliberal ideology can engender a sense of loneliness,” Becker and team claim. In study 3, they found that participants in the neoliberal condition also endorsed lower well-being.

Additionally, they observed that participants who identified as left-wing were more likely to experience a stronger sense of loneliness owing to neoliberalism when compared to right-wing participants. The researchers explain why they were interested in examining political orientation and social class:

“This is because it is conceivable that the effects of neoliberalism are particularly prevalent for those who are left‐wing (because they reject neoliberal systems) and people from lower social classes (because they are most exposed to the impact of a free‐market society in which there is no social security).”

Finally, in the fourth part, the researchers examined competition and social disconnection in relationship with exposure to neoliberal ideology. They found that people in the neoliberal condition reported higher levels of loneliness, competition, and social disconnection than those in social equality and control conditions. These individuals also had significantly lower well-being. In contrast, these health indicators did not differ across the social equality and control conditions.

Becker and colleagues summarized that exposure to neoliberalism predicted competition and disconnection. In turn, disconnection engendered loneliness, and loneliness predicted lower well-being. They write:

“This accords with our hypothesis that neoliberalism can increase loneliness and health problems by pitting individuals against each other in a competitive environment and eroding social connections between them.”

Importantly, regarding political orientation, neoliberalism predicted diminished well-being for liberals but not conservatives. However, neoliberalism’s effects on loneliness, explained by increased competition and social disconnection, were endorsed by everyone.

Becker and colleagues identified three major implications of their findings. First, this works adds to the literature on social determinants of health by demonstrating that neoliberal ideology poses a risk to individuals’ health. Second, these findings corroborate how being socially connected can have curative and protective effects on people’s health. Third, these new findings “bring these two lines of inquiry together,” they argue:

“…in a world where people are becoming increasingly aware of the health‐related costs of a mounting ‘loneliness epidemic,’ it may be time to broaden our critical gaze and reflect on the extent to which this too is a consequence of neoliberalism.”
“At the very least, as we attempt to tackle this epidemic, we need to be mindful of the fact that its causes can be political as much as social and psychological.”

 

 

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Becker, J. C., Hartwich, L., & Haslam, S. A. Neoliberalism can reduce well‐being by promoting a sense of social disconnection, competition, and loneliness. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12438

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Zenobia Morrill
MIA Research News Team: Zenobia Morrill is a graduate of the dual master’s counseling psychology program at Columbia University. As a doctoral student and researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she seeks to understand the context informing psychology research and the underlying social factors that influence individual psychology. She is currently involved in projects examining the impact of structural violence.

14 COMMENTS

  1. “Additionally, they observed that participants who identified as left-wing were more likely to experience a stronger sense of loneliness owing to neoliberalism when compared to right-wing participants. The researchers explain why they were interested in examining political orientation and social class:

    “This is because it is conceivable that the effects of neoliberalism are particularly prevalent for those who are left‐wing (because they reject neoliberal systems) and people from lower social classes (because they are most exposed to the impact of a free‐market society in which there is no social security).””

    There is a factor that’s gone unexamined here and that is the role that churches and religious affiliation plays in alleviating feelings of isolation and competition. It’s something that I felt keenly early on in the first decade or so after I left religious faith. The church had been a place where I went for belonging, friendships, material support. When I moved and had little furniture, my church family stepped in to provide. When my truck broke down, the pastor and deacons showed up out of the blue with the parts and labor and had it fixed in a matter of an hour. My church provided social inclusion, I used to sing before the congregation. When I lost my faith, I also lost long-standing friendships with very significant people in my life who turned me away. Some of whom considered my atheism a threat and didn’t want me around their children. Where would I get my morals, after all? Losing that was a crushing blow. So much so that I’ve sometimes considered the idea of feigning belief in God so that I could attend and get back those parts that were lost. I think this loss of community has had profound effects on those who are more liberal minded and as a group, we have to come up with ways to mitigate this and create new ways of being in community with each other. Like-minded people are extremely well connected virtually but are missing the physical connections that kept us strong and in community with each other.

    https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-christian-right-is-helping-drive-liberals-away-from-religion/

    Better socioeconomic status does not fix this from my experience. Being more comfortable provides temporary relief from the sense of disconnection. But that need to connect physically – to rebuild the village, so to speak – remains despite more creature comforts. And if anything, being better off removes you from the sense of comraderie you may otherwise have felt in shared deprivation. You now become someone who is supposed to be A-ok because you’ve “made it”. But that really isn’t the case. Retail therapy becomes a poor substitute for authentic human connection. Better economic policies are only one rung in the ladder of the changes that need to take place to rebuild what has been lost. We really lost the village.

    • Well liberals suck in general these days, and so does 538, so I wouldn’t really lose any sleep over liberals and the Christian right. They all have their own houses to clean up. In general I think liberals are more privileged and predatory.

      Still looking for a going definition of neoliberal here. Is a neoliberal like a regular liberal except richer and even more hypocritical? Or do you have to have Soros/Gates type wealth & power to qualify?

      Anyway, when you speak of “losing faith,” maybe you were more losing faith in the anthropomorphic Western “big man in the sky” concept of God, rather than your sense of spiritual connection with the Universe? Psychiatry after all is a substitute for religion among those who consider themselves too intellectually advanced to accept a spiritual realm without being seen as superstitious and backwards, so seek a sense of spiritual connectedness via “rational” mythologies such as “mental health.”

      Retail therapy becomes a poor substitute for authentic human connection.

      Authentic human connection is held hostage to market forces under capitalism, so yeah. That’s why 95% of my argumentation is directed at systemic issues, which should not be confused or conflated with personal ones. When I get a chance I want to study Marx’s writings on alienation, which I believe may contain some missing links in the quest to develop an AP analysis and strategy.

      We really lost the village.

      Damn — couldn’t we have just lost Hillary? 🙁

    • You say it so well KS.
      Indeed church is like psychiatry in that if you do not agree, then there is something wrong with you, so the answer is to shun, abandon or convert.

      You should never think, let others do that for you. If you have a problem they are likely to have the answer.
      And there are a lot of professions that charge a pretty penny for the insights we all need so dearly.

  2. A definition of neoliberalism as used here would be helpful, to start.

    Let’s not forget that neoliberalism is just one variant of capitalism, and to attack neoliberalism without attacking capitalism in general implies that we just need to fuss with the details a little and everything will be better — rather than upending and replacing the entire system. ALL capitalist societies feature alienation from oneself, one’s work, and the product of one’s labor as basic characteristics. It is not “neoliberal ideology” but the same old ruling class practice that’s the main problem.

    Those of us who remember GWB also understand that “neoconservatism” is hardly the answer either. It’s all a variation of “good cop/bad cop.”

  3. “Neoliberalism” may not be so good for “health” and Oldhead mentions the shortcomings of “neoconservatism.” Perhaps, there is the “neo” which does mean “new” that is the “big bugaboo.” I think it might be that old “silk purse/sow’s earth thing” or “there really is nothing new under the sun.” I believe both are Biblical references.
    In this essay, the author, although, does not discuss what is called the “New Age” and its impact on “mental health.” I should have included the etc. here. However, both “neoliberalism” and the “new age” share the common belief that the world reflects your problems or your successes. So, if a clerk in a store is irritable with you that day, it because, you are irritable inside, although, you may not show it. Conversely, if you are successful and you get that job you want, it is because you are thinking successful, positive thoughts. To me, this is just dancing down the yellow brick road and actually becoming the wizard or humbug’s assistant or even “stand-in.” It’s all a false way of living. The only difference, it seems between “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism” is how you frame the “good cop/bad cop” idea in your mind and how you feel it relates to you. All of this is try to avoid the “stinky” and there are only four ways to do that: clean up; take the garbage out; do your laundry; and take a hot shower. The truth is you must spend a part of your day doing the mundane and then you can spend the rest of the day doing the “happy stuff” for you. We lie to people and claim they can spend the whole day doing the happy stuff.” And, of course, they begin to think they need the psychiatrist, their drugs and their therapizing. I should add there is also the flip side of the same coin embodied in all this “neo” world. I would call it “doom and gloom.” In a way, for some, “doom and gloom” is the “happy stuff.” Many today feel caught between those opposing realities which may really be one and the same. Being caught, like in a spider’s web, they can not see a way out. This too, leads to the psychiatrist, the drugs, and the therapizing. I have either been down or subject to all roads. No matter which road you are on; you are vulnerable. I believe there are several ways to decrease one’s vulnerability. Neoliberalism, neoconservatism, the new age or doom and gloom are not the ways as you become just fodder for the psych community and even other groups and communities that do nothing but exploit and damage you. Thank you.

    • Some serious seeds of wisdom tucked in there, but a lot is constrained by language sometimes, and I don’t think the true choices before us personally and collectively can be framed in terms of “neo” anything. I’m just trying to communicate in the vernacular provided. I’m also looking for a consensual definition of neoliberal still, since it’s used more & more often. I think of it in terms of multinational corporate conglomerates, Gates & other would-be societal/cultural designers.

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